Exclusive Interview: Thai youth speak out – Hope, aspirations, and political perspectives ahead of elections

Exclusive Interview: Thai youth speak out – Hope, aspirations, and political perspectives ahead of elections

by Simone Galimberti

With the elections approaching, Thailand is at a crossroads.

On the one end, there is excitement, fervour, longing for real change, but at the same time, there is fear and anxiety that chaos might, once again, erupt in a polarized and divided nation.

Though the demographics are changing and the population is getting older, youths still constitute a vast portion of the citizens of the country, and there is a key constituency in this election.

Among them, there is hope that the elections this coming Sunday (14 May) will be followed by a new course, a new trajectory that will lead Thailand towards a different future.

Perhaps it is too simplistic to say that youths generally support the Move Forward Party (MFP), established following the dissolution of the Future Forward Party in 2020.

With certainty, we can say that the vast majority of them want a real change, and MFP which is progressively on the left of the political spectrum and the bolder in shaking up the status quo, offers them the best platform to channel, not only their frustrations but also the best ideas and propositions to achieve such transformation.

Yet at the same time, the reality is much more complex, and there are so many questions to understand the intricacies of the upcoming elections.

Will the opposition, mainly led by the Pheu Thai Party and MFP and a string of smaller parties, be able to thwart any attempts to remain in power by the current government, mostly led by former generals?

Will the newly established hyper-nationalist United Thai Nation Party, whose leading candidate is the incumbent prime minister, Prayut Chan-o-cha and the governing Palang Pracharath of Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, do whatever it takes to remain in power?

In order to better understand the thinking of the youths, I contacted Methichai Thongpleo or Mek, a third-year student of international development at the School of Social Innovation, Mae Fah Luang University in Chiang Rai, in the northernmost part of Thailand, not far from the border with Myanmar.

I have been knowing Mek for a few years as he has been attending several online trainings on Sustainable Development and youths ‘involvement in policy making that I had delivered.

As soon as he heard from me, Mek, with the great help of Siriporn Ruadrew or Gift, another exemplary participant of my courses, brought together a small group of peers for a focus group interview that happened earlier this week.

I had the chance to interact for almost two hours with six students from the School of Social Innovation, Mae Fah Luang, and it was one of the most interesting conversations I ever had.

Believe me, the energies, vibes, and interest were so intense that we could have talked for many more hours.

Besides Mek and Gift, Pichamon Sawekwan (Aom), Tula Kusurom (Tula), all from the 3rd year of international development studies,  also Savinee Sakjaroenchaikul (Fon)  and Orapan Kham-on (Fangkhao) from the second year of the same study path, attended.

Overarching support for MFP but, realistically speaking Pheu Thai Party will get more votes

The interviewees were all incredibly excited about the elections, but at the same time, I found in them a lot of nuance in trying to untangle a complex political scenario and the even more intricate dynamics that might unfold in the aftermath of the elections.

Yes, the members of the panel all rout for the MFP, but they are also conscious that the Pheu Thai Party, the party linked to the Shinawatra family that for over two decades has been a looming threat to the political conservative establishment, is the party most likely to get the highest number of votes and not only in the north, its bastion.

All the participants shared the view, unanimously, I would say, that hardly a post-election alliance between MFP and Pheu Thai Party, while it could work, despite the stringent conditions set by the latter, will be able to garner the indispensable 375 votes needed to nominate the prime minister and do away with the “veto” power of the appointed senate.

“The 2023 Thai election is an election of hope. Although it may be difficult for the Pheu Thai and MFP to win the 375 representative seats, I am confident that one of these two political parties will win this election for sure. This will bring about a certain change and development in Thailand politics for the better” shared Tula Kusurom.

Despite an overarching backing for the MFP, positive feelings for Paethongtharn

In my conversation, I realized that, while there is overall excitement for Pita Limjaroenrat, the candidate for prime minister of the MFP, the candidacy of Paethongtharn Shinawatra, one of the three prime ministerial candidates for the Pheu Thai Party, is very intriguing.

Paethongtharn, the daughter and nephew, respectively, of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and Yingluck Shinawatra, was seen, especially by the female members of the panel, as a capable possible future prime minister.

She is not just seen as the latest exponent of the Shinawatra climbing the power ladder but as someone with her own identity, her agency and ability to lead the nation.

Some interviewees recognized that the country could be in good hands if Paethongtharn were leading the government.

Most importantly, there was a strong belief that Thailand would be in a better place if the overwhelmingly male-dominated politics would give space to more women.

Having another female prime minister after Yingluck Shinawatra would make a huge difference towards opening the political system towards inclusion and diversity.

In this regard, Orapan Kham-on alias Fangkhao was very clear: “I am strongly support the MFP but I believe that Paethongtharn would be a great prime minister and somehow in me, maybe hidden inside, there is a desire for such development to materialize”.

Remoted chances of former Prime Minister candidate Sudarat Keyuraphan

I asked about the individual views on Sudarat Keyuraphan, the main candidate of the small Thai Sang Thai Party.

Sudarat represents an interesting political proposition as she was one of the leading candidates for the post of prime minister in the previous elections in 2019 when she was running for the Pheu Thai.

The members have an overall positive view of her but Tula Kusurom strongly believes that her image is too soft, too kind, as she tends to appear like a “caring mother”.

This, personally speaking, is not necessarily bad in politics and could actually be an advantage.

Everyone in the group believes that her party, Thai Sang Thai Party, has no chance of garnering a major number of seats but could be a key component of a coalition, together with two other smaller parties, Chart Pattana Kla, Chart Thai Pattana, that could back up a possible alliance between the MFP and Pheu Thai.

More maturity, including new tactics towards Section 112, mitigate risk of MFP being disbanded

What about the fears of chaos following a possible landslide victory of Pheu Thai and MFP?

All participants had some concerns about such a scenario, but none of them even remotely contemplated the possibility that the MFP could be disbanded again.

All in all, I was told, the MFP had matured a lot, and also its members, they explained, understood they could not be too upfront with their most radical proposals.

Indeed amending Section 112 of the Thai Criminal Code concerning lèse majesté, while it remains a key part of the party’s manifesto, has not been a central element of the party’s campaign.

This week we learned that The Pheu Thai remains open to amending the law but is much more cautious over the issue, trying to avoid potential backlashes from the conservative establishment.

Yet the members of the panel, like the vast majority of youths of the nation, were vocal in demanding a change.

Pichamon Sawekwan alias Aom shared: “The amendment of the Section 112 should be brought forward as soon as possible to stop the violations of human rights stemming from the legal loopholes of this section, allowing the royal family to handle lawsuits themselves because the royal family can be criticized the same as other humans”.

On the possibility of an outsider or compromise Prime Minister

What about the possibility of having an external, outsider Prime Minister, a technocrat, a “compromise” figure if neither Paethongtharn nor Pia could be palatable to the former generals running for the establishment?

Section 272 of the Constitution, approved in 2017, allows for such “Outside Prime Minister”.

Here the opinions were more overly against such a proposition, with only Methichai Thongpleo alias Mek being open to this idea.

“Section 272 “outside” Prime Minister of Constitution 2017 in Thailand, an outsider prime minister elected by a senator should be abolished because it does not come from the people’s voice and does not seem to follow any democratic principles,” Siriporn Ruadrew alias Gift shared.

Not only the majority of the members of our panel but also the general public and most of the analysts are against using such provision, especially if there will be a decisive victory for the Pheu Thai and the MFP.

Moreover, other venues could be explored: as other competent alternatives are already running for office, there should not be the need to use Section 272.

We should not forget Pheu Thai party is proposing not only Paethongtharn but also Srettha Thavisin, a well-known real estate developer and Chaikasem Nitisiri, a party insider, as its prime minister candidates.

Moreover, Sudarat Keyuraphan could also be an option that is more digestible for the conservative establishment. Even Korn Chatikavanij, a former finance minister running for the centrist and technocrat Chart Pattana Kla, a result of a merger of two parties, one of which, the KLA  made up of former members of the democratic party like Korn, could become a viable alternative.

Certainly, such options, especially one focused on Korn becoming the prime minister, do not excite the panel member as they feel that the new generations might reject such proposals.

A strong desire for real decentralization

We also discussed the need for Thailand to be a decentralized nation in order to consolidate its democracy and bring people closer to decision-making.

There was unanimity in this regard, with all the members of the focus group hoping for a strong decentralization and, even more than that, a turn toward federalism.

Let’s not forget that activism in the public square could be turned into a passion to care for the public affairs of the nation through deliberation.

After all, running for parliament should not be the only venue for youths to express their voices and contribute to defining a better nation.

Creating a system at local levels where citizens can have their opinions expressed and deliberate on the most important issues affecting them could be a key innovation that the MFP could propose.

Thailand must re-tooling and re-thinking its current systems of devolutions of powers to local levels, and this could also be a good opportunity to think boldly in terms of deliberative democracy from the bottom.

Regional Dimension: Thailand should drastically change its position towards Myanmar and ASEAN

The topic of regional and foreign politics is an issue that has been overwhelmingly neglected and overshadowed by a focus on internal and national issues.

This is a problem because Thailand is a key regional power, and how it conducts its foreign policy should matter to its citizens.

It also matters to the broader international community because a less conservative foreign policy, one focused on consolidating democracy and human rights in the region, could really tilt the balance in a region steeped in authoritarianism.

First of all, according to the member of the panel, a different foreign policy for Thailand would mean a drastic change towards the ongoing crisis in Myanmar.

A more progressive government, I was explained, would undoubtedly reverse the current standing policy of implicit support towards the junta in Myanmar.

Within ASEAN, such a move could create new power dynamics and strengthen the hands of countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore that are ready for more drastic actions against the generals in Naypyidaw.

Savinee Sakjaroenchaikul alias Fon said: “Thailand should have a much different and clear attitude on Myanmar’s conflict and its devastating losses stemming from the ongoing infighting. In short, if I had to pick a motto for a new Thai’s policy towards Myanmar, it should be the following “Do not support dictatorship and being on the side of the people and democracy. Find ways to deal with Myanmar refugees and migrants who come to Thailand.”

Lastly, our conversation ended up debating ASEAN and what Thailand could contribute to the process of regional cooperation.

In a sign proving how the bloc had become irrelevant to the youths of the region (when was it actually relevant?), none of the participants was actually aware that this week there is an ASEAN Summit taking place in Indonesia.

Perhaps, I might say, here there is a bit of lack of information which proves that youths all over are too disengaged from global affairs.

Both youths’ alienation from the leading regional cooperation project and their lack of interest towards international relations are a problem for Thailand, especially since its youths are totally disenchanted from ASEAN.

It is not that they do not believe in the importance and power of forging a strong regional identity, quite the contrary actually, but they feel ASEAN is too aloof and incapable of meeting the challenges of the day.

But all the panellists believed that Thailand should play a much more proactive role in strengthening ASEAN.

Methichai Thongpleo alias Mek said, “Thailand’s journey towards a strong democracy has to rely on prioritizing ASEAN integration that should become a cornerstone of our new foreign policy. We must, firstly, advocate inclusiveness and empower the sense of ASEAN citizenship, of common belonging among young Thai”.

Youth optimistic of change in Thailand

Thailand is on the threshold of a major change. This time the youths’ hopes cannot be dismissed as in the past.

There is, all in all, a realization that protests alone won’t break the status quo, and it is rather imperative to jump into the political arena.

The many progressive and bold stances of the youths should not be tempered by the reality on the ground, by the fact that the conservative establishment still holds sway in the country.

Indeed there is also a self-consciousness that changes, even at a slower pace and perhaps more in the forms of multiple tiny bits, is inevitable and will happen.

To wrap up the conversation, Orapan Kham-on alias Fangkhao could not better summarize the overall mood of the new generation of Thai citizens.

Asked about being optimistic about the developments that could follow this election, she said: “I think this election will bring about a lot of change and will catch the eye of the people. Because we all want to change after going through various battles in the recent years. So “Let no one rob the people of the victory”

Simone Galimberti writes on democracy, social inclusion, youth development, regional integration, SDGs and human rights in the context of Asia Pacific.

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